Heller was born and brought up during the Depression in Coney Island, New York. Aged 19, he enlisted and served as a bombardier, flying missions from Corsica, which provided the inspiration for Catch-22 (1961), his first novel, which has attained, and deservedly so, the status of a cult classic. The title is based on the absurd logic that an aircrew can be relieved from duty by claiming insanity; but if they do, this proves they are sane and therefore fit to fly—Catch-22. Sensibly concluding that the US Air Force, as well as the enemy, is out to kill him, Captain Yossarian is driven to desperate measures, such as turning up on parade in the nude to receive a medal from General Dreedle. But in the madhouse of war such acts pale alongside the scams of Milo Minderbender, who replaces morphine in the first-aid kits with share certificates, or Colonel Cathcart who keeps raising the number of missions just before leave is due, or the unfortunately named Major Major Major, who becomes terribly depressed when promoted to Major. This exhilarating black comedy (originally titled Catch-19) is possibly the best—undeniably the funniest—novel of the Second World War.
The rest of Heller's output lives in its shadow. Something Happened (1974) dissects the hollow sham of corporate America and the farcical scramble up the greasy executive pole, while in Good as Gold (1979) he gives a surreal twist to New York Jewishness and the Washington political scene. Closing Time (1994), the sequel to Catch-22, picks up the lives of many of the characters as they approach old age, but lacks the original's satiric brilliance and proves what an impossible act it was to follow. He has also written a brief autobiography, Now and Then (1998).